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The Comedy of Sexual Violence in Restoration Theatre

Clodagh Murphy,[1] University of Sheffield


Derek Hughes claims that the representation of rape in Restoration comedy 'was always used to criticise the sexual predator'. In this he suggests that comedic representations of rape were potentially proto-feminist, failing to consider the many of the period's plays which perpetuate rather than criticise rape culture. In this paper I shall use the theories outlined in Irigaray's The Sex Which is Not One (1977) to propose that Restoration comedies often anticipate her concept of the ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly: a system in patriarchal society in which women are exchanged between men. I shall examine Thomas Otway's Friendship in Fashion (1678), Thomas Shadwell's The Virtuoso (1676) and Aphra Behn's The Rover (1677) as plays in which this system functions. By positioning women as objects of exchange within scenes of sexual violence, Otway and Shadwell trivialise this abuse. Behn, however, begins to deconstruct the ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly in The Rover. My paper thus argues that Behn, in contrast to her male contemporaries, provides an effective critique of sexual violence and in doing so criticises the misogyny not only of her sources but also of the theatrical practice of the time.

Keywords: Restoration theatre, sexual violence, feminism, patriarchy, Marxism, libertinism.

The Restoration and reign of Charles II saw the reopening of the theatres, the advent of the English actress and – what is considered to be a result of the latter innovation – a spike in representations of rape in drama between 1660 and 1685 (Howe, 1992: 39). Rape has conventionally featured in tragedy since classical antiquity and is generally depicted as a violent and devastating act; however, after the introduction of the actress, rape scenes in tragedy were also used to titillate. Rape scenes never occurred on stage but dramatists often displayed the post-'ravished' woman, generally exposed somehow to stimulate a sexual thrill for the audience. One example is John Dryden's Amboyna (1673), in which the heroine Ysabinda is assaulted off stage before her husband 'discovers Ysabinda bound', and observes as he unbinds her that 'Your breast is white, and cold as falling Snow' (Dryden, 1673: 45–46). Thus where themes of ruin and devastation still prevailed as the function of rape in tragedy, the actress's body became newly exploited as an object of exhibition, allowing for the sexual objectification of the assaulted woman.

The Restoration also saw an emerging trend of rape in comedy, which raises questions regarding what place a conventionally tragic subject holds in comic drama and whether placing such a serious subject in an environment traditionally associated with the light-hearted can ever be anything other than problematic. Derek Hughes claims that 'there was an increasing interest in rape […] in comedy, but it was always used to criticise the sexual predator, and show the darker side of libertinism' (Hughes, 2005: 229), a statement that suggests comedic representations of rape were potentially proto-feminist, and benign in their depiction and impact. Such a sweeping statement threatens to be an over-simplification, however, and indicates a failure to recognise how the gender ideologies prevalent in many plays of the period perpetuate rather than criticise rape culture.

This study compares the representation of sexual violence in three Restoration comedies: Thomas Otway's Friendship in Fashion (1678), Thomas Shadwell's The Virtuoso (1676) and Aphra Behn's The Rover (1677) through the lens of Luce Irigaray's twentieth-century Marxist / feminist theories. In The Sex Which Is Not One (1985) Irigaray, by drawing on Marx's theories of commodification, argues that the treatment and status of women in a patriarchal economy reduces them to a form of currency. Irigaray defines this societal structure as a 'ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly' (Irigaray,1985: 171): a society based on the relations between men through which women are exchanged as objects of transaction 'from one man to another, from one group of men to another' (Irigaray, 1985: 171). The term 'ho(m)mo-sexual' is, further, visibly distinguished from the notion of homosexuality by its extra 'm', through the inclusion of which, as Teresa de Lauretis recognises, 'Irigaray puns on the French word for man, homme, from the Latin homo (meaning “man”), and the Greek homo (meaning “same”)' (de Lauretis, 1988: 156). In doing so, Irigaray conceptualises heterosexuality, not homosexuality, and its economy within the term 'ho(m)mo-sexual'. 'Ho(m)mo-sexuality' thus serves as 'the term of sexual indifference' (de Lauretis, 1988: 156) in which male heterosexual desire predominates and is indifferent to female desire in its various forms. This indifference thus allows for a system of sexual exchange in which women are excluded from active participation. The virgin woman is, for example, exchanged as sexual object between her father and husband the basis of her virtue. In my analysis, I examine how scenes of sexual violence in Restoration comedy are often structured as ho(m)mo-sexual monopolies in which women are reduced to sexual commodities and the reality of sexual violence subsequently fails to be efficiently criticised. I argue that Behn, however, anticipates Irigaray's theories in The Rover and in doing so criticises the misogyny not only of her sources, as many critics argue, but also of the prevalent theatrical practice of the time.

In order to conduct an accurate analysis it is necessary to understand how prevalent social attitudes about gender at the time influenced the representation and function of rape in comedies. As with any era or period in history, the various factors that form the prominent cultural ideas of Restoration society are complicated and intricate. In the aim of providing a concise yet informed analysis without over-generalising, this study focuses on two developments in particular that contribute significantly to ideas about gender in the period – and are of significant value to the examination of sexual violence in Restoration comedy – without claiming that they are either original to late seventeenth-century ideas about gender or exclusive to the period. The first is libertinism, and the second is the rise of mercantile society in late seventeenth-century England.

Libertinism gained momentum as a philosophy in the late seventeenth century, with figures such as the earl of Rochester and even the king himself practising a libertine lifestyle. Within a Restoration context, libertines are simply defined as figures who transgress cultural and social constraints by freely devoting themselves to the satisfaction of bodily desires that are otherwise regarded as taboo. Sexual excess is thus largely characteristic of a libertine lifestyle; however, despite the social transgression this entails, the liberation which libertinism promotes often only extends to men. Warren L. Chernaik captures this as he describes libertine Don Juan as 'servant of the phallus' (Chernaik, 1995: 1), recognising in this image the libertine prioritisation of male sexual desire; the libertine 'dream of human freedom' (Chernaik, 1995: 1) harbouring patriarchal limits.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick clarifies this male exclusiveness in her analysis of Wycherley's The Country Wife (1675), in which she highlights homosocial structures underlying Restoration libertinism. She defines '“male homosocial desire” – the whole spectrum of bonds between men, including friendship […] rivalry […] and economic exchange – within which the […] traffic in women take place' (Sedgwick, 1984: 227) and observes this structure in Wycherley's comedy through his emphasis on cuckoldry. The ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly differs from Sedgwick's concept of homosocial desire in that ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly explicitly refers to a male economy in which women are objects of commerce, whereas homosocial, although often allowing for a ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly, encapsulates more broadly the variety of same-sex relations and desires that are neither necessarily homosexual nor male – although they may be both – such as same-sex friendship

Libertinism is, for Sedgwick, a philosophy enjoyed by and between men, with women often excluded from subjective involvement, instead rendered objects of male desire and sexual transaction. This focus on exchange anticipates the conditions of the ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly, and is thus significant in relation to the intersection of libertinism and economic developments of late seventeenth-century society, which Laura Rosenthal defines as a shift from landed wealth to a 'growing “monied” class which benefited from new and expanded forms of financial circulation' (Rosenthal, 2006: 3). That women are the objects of libertine exchange highlights the overlap between Restoration society's ideas about finance and gender; sexual relations in Restoration patriarchal and mercantile society beginning to be 'imagined […] with men as active purchasers and women as the passive objects of consumption' (Fissell, 2017: 114). Transgressive though it might perceive itself to be, libertinism evidently remains informed by larger patriarchal – and financial – structures of power that subjugate women within an economy of masculine desire.

Libertinism and mercantile exchange are extensively examined in the comedy of the period through the often interweaving themes of sex and money; as Margaret Rubik asserts, 'the equation of sex and money […] is […] a trademark of Restoration comedy as […] expressed by Wycherley in the […] quip that the rake's business is pleasure' (Rubik, 2012: 2). That the proliferation of these themes coincides with the advent of the actress on the Restoration stage is no coincidence, either; as Felicity Nussbaum argues, 'actors became public commodities whose worth fluctuated depending upon public demand' (Nussbaum, 2005: 148) and further notes that, consequently, 'the boundary between theatre and life […] was remarkably supple, especially in regard to women's sexuality' (Nussbaum, 2005: 150). The actress's body is thus, as a newly visible femininity, subjected to a sexual commodification consequent to the newly commercial function of her role as public commodity. Though the public exploration of female sexuality is potentially progressive, the patriarchal intersections of libertine homosociality and mercantile society in much of the libertine comedy of the 1670s often reduces both woman and actress to object of sexual exchange between men; a phenomenon which, as this paper argues, is generally magnified in scenes of sexual violence. Whether these scenes of sexual violence condemn sexual violence, or whether they merely perpetuate an economy of sexual violence, is a question that I believe is necessary to examine in order to understand not only the cultural climate of the late seventeenth century, but that of our own patriarchal society as well, and is thus a primary enquiry of this paper.

Before concentrating on the scenes of attempted rape in the three plays which form this study, it is valuable to consider methods by which persons – particularly women – become commodified in Restoration theatrical culture more specifically. Thomas Killigrew's Thomaso (1654), the source text for Behn's Rover, is a particularly valuable means of doing so. A prominent member of Charles's court and theatre manager of the King's Company 1660–77, Killigrew had a significant role in the production of Restoration drama, staging such popular comedies as Behn's Rover and Wycherley's The Country Wife (1675). Thomaso thus provides insight into the dramatic traditions in which Behn and her contemporaries were working and, in some cases, reacting against. Its opening highlights, for example, how conventional homosocial structures of dialogue begin to function, through intersections of libertinism and mercantilism in Restoration comedy, as ho(m)mo-sexual monopolies in which women are commodified. The male characters that open Thomaso do so through banter about their relationships with women:

Johan. […] till she can find one that payes better, or I one that pleaseth better, 'tis like to be the same dull Matrimony it has been.
Pedro. […] keep to one Wench a year! I would wear one shirt, one pair of shooes, […] as soon as let the Sun set twice upon the same […] form in my company.
(Killigrew, 1654: 315)

This structure of banter between men is not a feature characteristic of or unique to Restoration comedy; it dates back much further, with Mercutio's teasing of Romeo's love for Juliet in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1597) standing as perhaps one of the most obvious, albeit not earliest, examples. This dialogue, however, highlights how these structures of homosocial banter can, through the language of commerce, result in an overtly sexualised commodification of women. Pedro and Johan's banter relies on women 'serv[ing] as the conduits through which [their] bonds are expressed' (Storr, 2003: 39–40), generating friendship through the degradation of women within it, a degradation largely achieved through a language of commerce. Words such as 'payes' used in relation to 'pleaseth', and the comparison between commodities such as shirts and women, highlight not only the topicality of mercantile and libertine themes but also the commodification of women within them. Such commodification is made explicit in the men's specific discussion of Angelica Bianca, a courtesan they refer to as 'since the General's death, exposed to sale; Her price and Picture hangs upon the door, where she sits in publick' (Killigrew, 1654: 314). Although Angelica is a courtesan and is thus the director of her own trade, Killigrew outlines her 'for sale' status as a consequence of the General's death. In doing so, he displaces her from her subjective role as trader and situates her instead as product passed between the General and the next potential – male – buyer. As a result, he reduces her to an object of transaction between men, twisting the seller–buyer structure of her prostitution into a ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly.

The banter between Killigrew's libertine male characters thus exposes a misogyny inherent to the relationship between libertinism and the emerging mercantile society of the late seventeenth century. As it does so, Thomaso's opening implements a theatrical tradition patterned in later drama of the Restoration; Wycherley's Country Wife is a notable example. Although Thomaso is often categorised as closet drama, Marcus Nevitt points out that 'many of [the play's] stage directions are instructions for production rather than discursive evocations' (Nevitt, 2013: 118–19). The presence of stage directions therefore suggests it was intended for performance, indicating that Killigrew structured his opening in this way to cater to contemporary humour. This, subsequently, suggests that associating women with objects of commerce was a topical practice within Restoration society.

The language of commerce employed by libertine men makes its way on to the Restoration stage via plays such as Thomas Otway's Friendship in Fashion, a comedy which explores libertinism and its conflict with marriage. Although Friendship in Fashion was not first staged until over a decade after the publication of Thomaso, Otway mirrors Killigrew's opening structure as his three male protagonists joke, primarily, about women. My analysis of the play, before focusing specifically on the attempted rape of Lady Squeamish, examines how Otway's use of this dialogue makes a ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly of the theatre space, resulting in the commodification of women and, when it comes to the attempted rape scene, the trivialisation of sexual violence.

Charles H. Hinnant explores how 'the shopkeeper and his outlook […] increasingly began to pervade the ethos of Restoration comedy' (Hinnant, 1995: 78), an outlook which he perceives to generate a 'language of […] economy' (Hinnant, 1995: 78) which, through a system of mercantile metaphors and wordplay, 'opens up a space of exchange' (Hinnant, 1995: 78). Although Hinnant argues that this language, where employed in relation to sexual affairs, creates 'an uneasy truce' (Hinnant, 1995: 82) between men and women 'in which both party respects […] the other', forming 'the prerequisite for […] commodity exchange and a culturally mediated […] battle of the sexes' (Hinnant, 1995: 82), Otway's play stands apart from this apparent shift towards gender equality. The language of commerce in Friendship in Fashion is, similarly to Thomaso, largely reserved for male characters and used to discuss women, commodifying them and subsequently eliminating them from the supposedly equal playing field of economic exchange.

The opening dialogue of libertine banter between Truman, Valentine and Goodville exemplifies how this exclusion functions. In it, Truman mocks Valentine for having 'hardly been married ten days, but he left his wife […] whilst he debauched me with two Vizors in a hackney' (Otway, 2005: 251), and Goodville remarks on marriage that 'he is only confined by it that will be so. A man may make his Condition as easie as he pleases. Mine is such a fond, wanton ape, I never come home, but she entertains me with fresh kindness' (Otway, 2005: 252). The comedy of this dialogue mirrors that of Thomaso as it takes on a homosocial structure in which women exist as vehicles of a libertine humour made at their expense. The libertine's banter therefore functions as a verbal form of the patriarchal exchanges described by Irigaray, who outlines that 'a sociocultural endogamy would […] forbid commerce with women. Men make commerce of them […] they do not enter into any exchanges with them' (Irigaray, 1985: 172). By holding women as its object of amusement the banter addresses the libertine male spectator even though women were also in attendance at the theatre; subsequently, the banter functions as an exchange between male character and male libertine spectator in which women are trafficked as objects of amusement. Otway, by catering for a male libertine audience, begins to make a ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly of the theatre space.

This ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly becomes increasingly economic through the presence of the actress. When Mrs Goodville, for example, first enters in the second act she exhibits an agency that supports Hinnant's 'battle of the sexes' as she investigates her husband's infidelity, vowing to 'discover […] who […] wrongs me in my husband's affection […] I have a rival' (Otway, 2005: 264). This notion of rivalry, however, creates a structure of competition between women for male attention as if they are products on the market, constructing Mrs Goodville a 'value form': a term coined by Marx which he defines as 'the value of a commodity […] hidden in the value relation between two commodities' (Marx, 2004: 140). The value of a commodity, as Irigaray clarifies, is generated through 'confront[ation] with another commodity' (Irigaray, 1985: 176). Mrs Goodville's rivalry with Victoria functions as this confrontation. Therefore, even where female characters exhibit agency in the play and appear to engage on a supposedly equal playing field with men, they remain restricted by commodification. This commodification overlaps with that of the actress herself; exchanged as commodity between the men who hired her and the men who consumed her performance – or even those men who 'preyed on the early actress, sometimes paying a fee to visit them backstage in the hope of gaining sexual favours' (Nussbaum, 2005: 150). The ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly made of the theatre thus extends beyond the stage, and becomes increasingly problematic as Otway grants temporary permission for voyeuristic and sexualised commodification of the female body in the attempted rape of Lady Squeamish:

L. Squ.: […] Nay, Sir Noble, for heaven's sake!
Sir Nob.: […] I must embrace thy lovely body […] Sir, do you know me? I am Sir Noble Clumsy: I am a Rogue of an Estate, and live I---Do you want any money? I have fifty pound.
Val: Nay good Sir Noble […] The lady, the lady Sir Noble.

Sir Nob.: Lady […] be civil and come kiss me. I shall ravish else; I shall ravish mightily.
Val.: Well done, Sir Noble. To her, never spare.
(Otway, 2005g: 279)

In this scene, Malagene orchestrates a chase between Sir Noble and Lady Squeamish, resulting in the former's attempted rape of the latter. Noble's demand for sexual access to Squeamish's 'lovely body' emphasises the actress's visible female sexuality, inviting, through its visual focus, the audience to consider her form. As a result, Jean Marsden's observation that scenes of sexual violence in Restoration tragedy 'foreground the sexuality of the actress' (Marsden, 1996: 186) becomes true to say of its representation in Otway's comedy, as his focus on Squeamish's 'lovely body' creates an 'erotic spectacle for an audience that' – as shown in my analysis of the opening dialogue – 'is tacitly assumed to be male' (Marsden, 1996: 186). Such sexual objectification is a significant feature of the scene in relation to contemporary legal disputes about rape. Julia H. Fawcett describes a 'reconsideration of women's bodies and of public space that had begun in the early sixteenth century (when the question of women's consent had first been introduced into legal practice […] ) but that was gaining momentum in [the late seventeenth century]' (Fawcett, 2017: 160) and highlights how, as the distinction between seduction and rape was becoming a subject of increased debate, the topic of consent and 'women's ownership of their bodies' (Fawcett, 2017: 160) was increasingly discussed. As Anna Clark outlines, however, misogynist ideas about the female body were not eradicated by this legal attention, but were often assimilated into it:

Manasseh Dawes, a London barrister […] claimed that rape was the 'artless sincerity of natural passion'. In the rapist, Dawes went on, 'desire is whetted, importunity fails, passion increases […] and natural force is employed'. He blamed the female victim because 'her endearments alone excited' this violence.
(Clark, 1987: 34)

Where scenes of sexual violence in comedy often effectively examine questions of consent – one example being the bed swap scene in Behn's The Lucky Chance (1687) – Otway's focus on Squeamish's 'lovely body' highlights that this is not true of all representations of rape in comedy, as he inadvertently reasserts Dawes's argument that a woman's physical attractiveness renders her the instigator of her own assault. Objectified by both Sir Noble and the audience, Squeamish's physical form and visible female sexuality becomes distorted as an advertisement of and invitation to the female body both within and outside of the script; verbal consent and, with it, the female voice being obscured as a result.

The problem of sexual violence in Friendship in Fashion is further troubled as the scene itself takes on the structure of a ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly, and Squeamish's initial objectification becomes commodification. Sir Noble follows his claim to Squeamish's body with an address to Valentine in which he asserts his social ranking and wealth and offers Valentine money. The change of addressee from woman to man indicated by Noble's 'Sir, do you know me?' marks the point at which the interaction becomes a sexual transaction. Noble's offering Valentine money for access to Squeamish's body renders her a sexual commodity passed between two men. Furthermore, the references to money, estate and, significantly, Noble's threat of ravishment function as language of commerce, obscuring the reality of sexualised violence against women with a masculine, mercantile discourse. 'Ravish', a loaded term in the late seventeenth century, explicitly ties the financial with the sexual as it refers to rape as theft: specifically, one man's taking of a woman who 'belongs' to another man. Noble's threat of ravishment thus threatens both sexual assault and theft and, through the conflation of both crimes, displaces the female victim. Squeamish's reality as victim of attempted rape is thus diluted as she is commodified and her perspective ignored through Otway's structuring of rape as a transaction.

Situating this scene between the play's most buffoonish characters, Otway's representation of sexual violence provides more of a comic interlude than effective critique; with little focus on Lady Squeamish's perspective or condemnation of Noble's actions. Rather, Valentine's quips of 'well done' and 'never spare' encourage the audience to find Noble amusing rather than a violent threat. As a result, Otway's representation of sexual violence – though it highlights how vulnerable women's position as commodities between men makes them to assault – does not criticise, but rather trivialises their experience. His language of commerce provides a vocabulary for talking about such issues that only perpetuates an economy of sexualised violence and makes the women of Restoration patriarchal society more vulnerable in the process.

The subject of the female body, its sexuality, ownership and violation, is evidently a large point of focus in Restoration theatrical and legal representations of sexual violence – as Otway demonstrates – and is further considered in Thomas Shadwell's The Virtuoso. Produced two years prior to Friendship in Fashion, The Virtuoso was exceedingly more successful and explores questions of space and performance. The structures of the ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly are less prominent in The Virtuoso than in Friendship in Fashion; however, its scene of attempted rape provides significant insight into how debates about sexual violence were invested in questions of performance and, specifically, the performance of the female body. The attempted rape scene in The Virtuoso occurs between the play's two coxcombs Sir Formal and Sir Samuel Hearty, with the latter disguised as and mistaken for a woman. Performing the female body correctly is thus of crucial importance in this scene and for Shadwell serves, I argue, as a means of re-affirming conventional gender roles that define women as objects subject to the actions of men. The scene occurs in the fourth act as Sir Samuel, disguised as a woman, descends into the vault of the Virtuoso's home in which he encounters Sir Formal and is subsequently advanced upon:

Sir Form. Thou hast provok'd my gentle spirit so, it is become furious, and it is decreed I must enjoy thy lovely body---
Sir Sam. Out upon you! Get you gone, you Swine. I will not suffer in my honour, I am virtuous. Help! Help! A Rape! A Rape! Help! Help!
Sir Form. […] you have prok'd me contrary to my gentle temper even to a Rape. Come, I will, I must, i'faith I must.
Sir Sam. 'Sdeath! The Rogue begins to pry into the difference of Sexes, and will discover mine--- I must try my strength with him …
[Sir Sam. beats Sir Form. Kicks him, and flings him down].
(Shadwell, 1676: 58)

Fawcett asks 'how […] might women claim their bodies as private on those occasions when they passed (as all must, at some point) through public space?' (Fawcett, 2017: 156) The vault in which Sir Samuel and Sir Formal reside is a private space, but as a vault it holds connections to notions of money, possession and property which, due to the male-defined sphere of commerce within a ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly, both define its space as masculine and as a space in which the terms of this monopoly are active. Entering into this masculine space as a woman, Sir Samuel transgresses the boundaries of 'spaces explicitly mapped as domestic' (Fawcett, 2017: 157), or, feminine, and becomes vulnerable 'to rape, among other punishments' (Fawcett, 2017: 157) as a result. The question of performing the female body is thus arisen by this transgression and the importance of performing this body correctly is made explicit by the threat of sexualised violence. As Fawcett recognises, women 'must somehow signal ownership of their own bodies and the spaces immediately surrounding those bodies even when they stand on land belonging to someone else' (Fawcett, 2017: 156). Fawcett identifies such signals of ownership in her analysis of Behn's Lucky Chance, in which she highlights how

Leticia/Cooke's body performs the mock marriage ceremony (she weeps, she embraces Belmour, she kneels – and she leads him in doing the same) […] As she does, she invites her spectators to judge these movements' efficacy in conveying her negotiation between the performance of resistance […] and the performance […] between being too frigid and being too yielding to the men in her midst
(Fawcett, 2017: 161)

Sir Samuel is, however, not a woman, and his attempt to signal ownership of his – female – body fails. Instead of performing his body as a woman would, he attempts to control Sir Formal's. He orders Sir Formal to exit the space of the vault rather than move out of it himself and, in doing so, emphasises the stark difference between male and female perceptions of space and subjectivity in Restoration patriarchal society. Through the act of command, Sir Samuel demonstrates the perspective and position of subjectivity that is reserved for men in a ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly and in patriarchal society more generally. Reading him visually as a woman, Sir Formal does not respect this subjectivity; instead he grows angry and threatens sexualised violence. The contemporary question of a woman's consent thus begins to be assimilated into that of a woman's ownership of her body; Sir Formal's failure to understand Sir Samuel's ownership of this 'female' body, where he does profess it, highlights the impossibility of women's inability to 'own' in Restoration patriarchal society. That she cannot own even her own body within this scene highlights the terms of the ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly at work even within the act of performing bodily ownership. Sir Formal's threat serves as a demonstration of the violations to which women's bodies are 'made vulnerable if they fail to perform their personal space properly' (Fawcett, 2017: 159) and, in doing so, reasserts women's status as objects of male possession in the ho(m)mo-sexual-monopoly and, in turn, Restoration patriarchal society.

This understanding of women's status as sexual object is emphasised by the claim Sir Formal makes to Sir Samuel's 'lovely body', which mirrors that of Sir Noble's in Friendship in Fashion almost word for word. The severity of his threat is diluted by the comedy generated by the contrast between Sir Samuel's physical reality as man and Sir Formal's misinterpretation of this reality as feminine and 'lovely'. The humour of this mistaken identity relies on the audience's awareness of Sir Samuel's masculinity, which subsequently illuminates the apparent absurdity of considering the male form 'lovely' in Restoration patriarchal society. This, in turn, suggests the impossibility of a man being sexually objectified or commodified within a ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly – and patriarchal society more broadly – as the subjectivity of the conventional male role does not allow for such objectification. By reaffirming the notion that subjectivity is characteristic of masculinity, Shadwell reasserts the patriarchal assumption that 'only men can rape' (Marsden, 1996: 197) and subsequently, that men cannot be raped, as rape is an action performed upon an other, which in turn renders sexualised violence as 'the ultimate expression of phallic power' (Marsden, 1996: 197) over women. It is, further, Sir Samuel's display of masculinity that actually allows him to escape the impending assault. As he exclaims that 'I must try my strength with him', and proceeds to beat and kick his attacker, Sir Samuel's physical masculinity acts to obstruct access to his body, demonstrating a masculine agency and subjectivity that within the ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly women are denied and which their more coded bodily performances cannot so reliably achieve. In defining masculinity as such, and in the patriarchal overtones within his exploration of female bodily autonomy, Shadwell inadvertently reaffirms women's status as object: acted upon, used, possessed and exchanged between men as a sexual commodity, something which, through the farcical nature of the scene, is not treated with the critical weight that it warrants.

As Otway and Shadwell explore the subject of sexual violence between the two most ridiculed characters of their respective plays, so the severity of sexualised violence is diluted by both playwrights; women are either fully absent referents, as in The Virtuoso, or commodified and overshadowed by structures of libertine homosociality, as in Friendship in Fashion. Attention to women's perspective within the plays in this study has so far been largely neglected. In the most famous play of England's first professional female playwright, The Rover, Aphra Behn provides an interrogation not only of sexual violence, but also of the social conditions which enable it – libertinism and developing mercantile society, as well as more conventional patriarchal ideas about gender – through her attention to women's perspective and experience of navigating Restoration patriarchal society. In my analysis of The Rover I explore how Behn employs subversive tactics to centralise female perspective, arguing that she subsequently offers an unconventional representation of sexual violence that effectively criticises both sexual assault and the dramatic practice of Restoration theatre culture.

Behn's subversion occurs as early as in her opening dialogue, in which she subverts both Killigrew's patriarchal discourse and the dominant masculinity of language more broadly by privileging female voices. The scene opens with sisters Hellena and Florinda discussing, primarily, Florinda's marriage prospects:

Flor.: […] how near soever my Father thinks I am to marrying that hated object, I shall let him see, I understand better […] than to obey those unjust commands
Hell.: How hang me, if I don't love thee for that dear disobedience […] but tell me dear Florinda , don't you love that fine Anglese ?---for I vow next to loving him my self, 'twill please me most that you do so, for he is so gay and so handsome.
Flor.: Hellena, a Maid design'd for a Nun, ought not to be so Curious in a discourse of Love.
(Behn, 1677: 5)

By having Hellena and Florinda perform this dialogue Behn allows the women to introduce themselves rather than be constructed through the male voice and perspective, subverting the masculine libertine homosociality of Thomaso, as her source text, and other plays such as Friendship in Fashion. Where Killigrew's male characters discuss women, Behn's women discuss men; where at the outset of Thomaso Carlo observes 'she is to me no such excellence, but that a Man may find greater Beauties in the two Sisters' (Killigrew, 1654: 315), Behn grants Florinda the subjectivity that is so often reserved for men to assert her opinion of Don Vincentio as 'that hated object'. As a result, Hellena and Florinda are, as Dagney Boebel recognises, given 'the power to construct masculinity according to their desires and the power to signify themselves' (Boebel, 1996: 56). In signifying themselves as such, the women perform further subversion. Hellena, for example, rejects the traits of innocence and chastity that are associated with the role of nun by declaring herself as 'loving mischief' and, as Florinda remarks, 'curious in a discourse of Love'. The women, as a result, discard patriarchal definitions of femininity and in doing so destabilise the hierarchy of Restoration patriarchal society, demonstrating the agency and desire which The Virtuoso, for example, defines as masculine.

By prioritising the female perspective and voice as such, Behn introduces into her comedy what Fawcett describes as the perspective 'of the walkers in the city […] These walkers have little sense of the panoramic views that their more privileged neighbors enjoy, but they boast a more intimate understanding of the city's movements and of the bodies pushing through its crowded streets' (Fawcett, 2017: 158). In Fawcett's analysis, the 'privileged view' is held by men. Able to own property, men occupy a position of superiority from which they can perceive the world and their possessions within it from a metaphorical albeit detached height. Women, however, reside as objects of commerce in a metaphorically lower sphere in which they gain an intimacy with the cities 'bodies' as they are passed between them but find, in this intimacy, vulnerability to the threats that these bodies might pose to their own.

Behn's exploration of sexual violence and focus on women's perspective within it provides an 'intimate' view of Restoration society whereas plays such as Friendship in Fashion and The Virtuoso could, as a result of their trivialised representations, be read as offering a privileged and potentially patriarchal perspective detached from the violent reality of sexualised violence. This 'intimate perspective' is significantly demonstrated in the first scene of attempted rape against Florinda, which occurs as the play's libertine protagonist, Willmore, attempts to rape her as she waits for her lover, Belville. The pair engage in a struggle in which Florinda repeatedly makes her unwillingness apparent. She cries 'Sir, let me go […] or I'll call out' (Behn, 1677: 44) and, as the stage directions dictate, 'she struggles with him' (Behn, 1677: 44) as well as threatening 'I'll cry Murder! Rape! or any thing! If you do not instantly let me go' (Behn, 1677: 44). Through Florinda's interjections, Behn highlights the array of emotions she experiences as a victim of attempted rape: fear, horror and desperation being the most explicit. This contrasts strongly with Otway's depiction of Lady Squeamish, for example, which fails to address in such detail the perspective of the victim. In doing so, Behn approaches the subject of sexual violence from an angle which incorporates the feminine perspective of intimacy and subsequently illustrates the severity of sexual violence as experienced by Restoration women. She thus firmly establishes the women of her play as subjects, rather than as sexual objects or vehicles of libertine homosociality.

Libertinism's potential misogyny is further critically examined in this scene, libertine philosophy represented as complicit in the subjugation of women to an economy of masculine desire; Behn 'unmasking the phallic violence' (Boebel, 1996: 56) of its supposed sexual liberation. As Florinda threatens to cry rape, for example, Willmore exclaims:

A rape! Come, come, you lie, you baggage, you lie: what, I'll warrant you would fain have the world believe now that you are not so forward as I. No, not you! Why, at this time of night, was your cobweb door set open dear spider, but to catch flies.
(Behn, 1677e: 44–45)

Prior to this scene, Florinda 'invites [Belville] to deliver her from the threatened violence of her brother' (Behn, 1677: 13) and waits for him in undress and with box and key. In doing so, Florinda rebels against her brother's wish that she marry Antonio, and asserts her own agency and sexual desire both through language and the images of availability and intimacy signified by her undress and the box and key. Willmore, however, interprets Florinda's self-signification of desire as an invitation to sexual access for anyone. His refusal to accept Florinda's bodily autonomy highlights that women in Restoration society have a fragile ownership of their own bodies; one that is violated by characters such as Willmore. The libertine ethos of sexual excess is thus presented as both potentially predatory and complicit in the subjugation of women to an economy of male desire; Willmore becoming, as Jennifer Airey observes, 'a more attractive version of Don John, one whose self-serving pursuit of more and greater pleasure is tamed and reabsorbed into the matrimonial economy' (Airey, 2012: 102). In this, Airey acknowledges that the libertine rake is in fact a much more insidiously misogynistic figure than often recognised within the comedy of the time, and he often relies of the systems in which women are exchanged to obtain the sexual freedom he professes. In Willmore, Behn thus 'exposes the dark and frightening underside of the libertine ethos' (Airey, 2012: 102), effectively criticising libertine culture and the role it plays in perpetuating misogyny, condemning it for the one-sided nature of its philosophy of sexual freedom.

The link between libertinism and the treatment of women as objects of commerce between men is more explicitly outlined in the second attempted rape of Florinda. In this scene, Behn again allows Florinda to protest, plead and demonstrate an array of emotions; however, this time it culminates in her presenting a diamond ring given to her by Belville as a last attempt to dissuade the men from assaulting her. It works, with Blunt exclaiming; 'Hum, a diamond […] there's more persuasive rhetoric in't, than all her sex can utter' (Behn,1677: 68).

What this suggests is that the only thing persuading Frederick and Blunt to reconsider the assault is the prospect of Florinda belonging to another man. Through the ring Belville's masculine voice overrides Florinda's and subsequently reflects the contemporary judicial attitudes towards rape as 'only significant when it involved the property of a man […] the law of rape […] had evolved to protect the theft of female sexual property, not to protect women themselves' (Clark, 1987: 46–47).

Additionally, Nazife Bashar notes that 'the only convictions that were imposed were on men accused of raping young girls' (Bashar, 1938: 42), highlighting the dynamics of Irigaray's ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly as at work in seventeenth-century legal discourse. The understanding here is that young girls supposedly had value in the form of their implied virginity. This value, however, belonged to their father and was his to use in arranging the desired marriage; exchanging his daughter as a product. Once raped, however, the object of value (the girl's virginity) had already been taken and thus the father's opportunity for a successful transaction was ruined; his daughter rendered worthless. The perceived issue here, then, is not the violation of the woman, but the violation of what was considered the property of another man: a theft. This perception of sexual violence began to be contested, as I explored in relation to the growing question of consent, however Behn's representation of it at play in this scene functions as a critical observation that such views were still active in the late seventeenth century.

What halts Blunt and Frederick then is not that they may violate a woman but that – through rendering her valueless – they may violate another man. It is the absent voice of another man that speaks with more authority over Florinda's body than her own. In this, Behn, as Rubik recognises, 'links the world of cavaliers with that of traders, with whose business practices the rakish heroes seem to identify on occasion' (Rubik, 2012: 223). Florinda exists for Blunt and Frederick as a conduit between them and the absent man who owns her. The ring – signifying money, possession, and marriage as the ultimate patriarchal exchange of women – thus exposes a ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly structure at work in the scene through which Florinda is reduced to a sexual commodity passed between men.

In The Rover Behn thus demonstrates an acute awareness of the subjugation of women within an economy of masculine desire consequent of the intersection of homosocial libertinism and rising mercantile society in the late seventeenth century. Her interrogation of sexual violence in her most famous play provides invaluable insight into Restoration ideas about gender from a crucial female perspective; a perspective which exhibits an anticipation of Irigaray's feminism centuries prior to the publication of The Sex Which Is Not One. As England's first professional female playwright, Behn therefore offers a pioneering proto-feminism through which she criticises not only the misogyny of her source text, but also the theatrical practice of some of her male contemporaries. She subsequently shows Hughes's claim that representations of rape in Restoration comedies always serve to criticise the sexual predator to be both rash and at risk of diluting the prominent concerns and contributions of Early Modern women writers.

Behn's contribution to Restoration theatre further reaffirms the importance of a more diverse literary canon. Recent events such as the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement have exposed how far positions of power are still occupied by men and how much this power is abused, highlighting the ho(m)mo-sexual monopoly as active still today. Behn thus offers a perspective which exposes not only the misogyny in late seventeenth-century society, but that within our own, as well. The representation of sexual violence in Restoration comedy, as this paper has explored, and Behn's contribution to it, therefore provides a valuable point from which to examine our broader cultural history and begin to effectively challenge the patriarchal systems of oppression within it.


[1] Clodagh studied her BA in English Literature at the University of Sheffield and is now studying her MA in Early Modern English Literature at King's College London. She plans to undertake a PhD in Restoration Literature in 2020.


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To cite this paper please use the following details: Murphy C. (2018), 'The Comedy of Sexual Violence in Restoration Theatre', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 11, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.